Tag Archives: walking

Uneven ground

Mammals who frequent an area make paths – we humans aren’t unusual in that regard. Granted, other mammals just keep the undergrowth down and the ground compacted, whereas we’ve gone a lot further. We’ve taken our path making to the point of it being much more comfortable and reliable for us (until we can’t afford to fix the potholes) but is it as good as it seems? Accessibility is an issue, certainly. what I’m talking about in this post isn’t feasible for everyone, and will work very differently depending on how you body and senses operate.

Summer walking off the tarmac means a lot of undergrowth. Footpaths in Gloucestershire aren’t being maintained because budgets for everything have been cut. Walking means long grass, fallen trees, dense undergrowth, uneven footing. It is much harder work, and I inevitably go slower and have to make more effort. I also notice that this kind of involved waking takes most, if not all of my attention. I can’t think about much else because I have to pay so much attention to what’s in front of me, to my feet, arms, where the brambles and stinging nettles are, and what wildlife might be trodden on if I’m careless. In short, I have to become deeply immersed in my environment. In other contexts, I can spend a lot of time trying to get to that via meditation, but this is more effective.

Walking on rough ground, I have to be very focused on the present. I am alert to my immediate future – where the path is going, what hazards are coming up, and what I need to do now to make sure I haven’t set myself up for a bigger problem shortly. You can’t totally live in the moment when walking or you’ll have to spend a lot of time backtracking to avoid obstacles you’d have otherwise avoided, and then to go back round you have to enter a relationship with past and present anyway. What happens when walking is a relationship with time that is all about what you’re doing.

Curiously, I find that relationship with time also includes memories of when I last walked in a place. Some of that will be about how I felt and what I did. I also remember locations of wildlife encounters, problems with paths, routes that proved especially rewarding and so forth. Delving into the past in this way enriches the present, and is often practical and useful as well. Wild things have their territories and habits, so remembering what was where previously increases my chances of seeing things again.

I find there’s a mental health benefit to engaging this intensely with my environment. It stops me overthinking. I find it mentally tiring, but there’s also a cleansing, clearing effect that I benefit from. I like knowing that I do not need mental discipline to get into this headspace – I can do it from whatever mess my head is in. The path I walk will show me the way, and if I am too self involved, the path will trip me, cut me and sting me until I pay it the attention and respect it demands.

Advertisements

Walking Speed

If your main aim is to cover as much ground as possible, then walking as quickly as you can is clearly the way to go. If you have little time and want to get as much exercise as you can, it’ll be top speed for you. If you are walking for transport and have to be somewhere at a specific time – again the answer is speed.

If you want to engage with the wild world, then speed is not the answer.

You can engage with the shape of the land by moving through it at a pace, but not with whatever else is living there. You have a better chance of spotting wild things by slowing down.

When we move quickly, our own bodies make a lot of noise. Our clothes rustle, our feet pound, our breathing is heavier and our hearts may pound in our ears. All of this drowns out the subtler noises. To hear and thus spot a creature in the undergrowth, you need to be making less noise with your own body. Moving slowly makes it easier to be quieter. Wild things that routinely get human contact aren’t necessarily scared off by our noise, but they can easily avoid us and we are less likely to notice them.

For wildlife spotting, your peripheral vision is critically important. It’s those small signs of movement picked up in the corner of your eye that will likely lead to seeing something. If you’re moving too fast, what’s in the peripheral vision is harder to process – you get a second or two sometimes to register movement and focus on it before the bird or animal has gone. The faster you move, the more you have to focus on the route before you, the less you use your peripheral vision, and the less you see.

Plants are also likely to be on either side of your path, not dead ahead. Again, your scope for noticing plants is improved if you have time to look to either side. If the plants are right in front of you, you’re probably making poor choices about where to walk. Stay on the path and don’t walk over wild plants if you can help it. Our desire for wildness does not entitle us to go stamping about over wild places. We cause less harm when we stay on the path. Wild things are also less bothered by us if we stay on the path and act predictably. Getting off the path doesn’t increase your chances of seeing wild things and may take you the other way entirely.


Haunted by landscapes

This has been happening to me for a while now – usually on the edges of sleep. Out of nowhere comes an image of a landscape. I won’t necessarily recognise it at first. It tends to come with a feeling of loss and anxiety about not knowing where and when this memory has surfaced from. Sometimes I am able to recall the origin of the memory, sometimes not.

Walking has always been a big part of my life. I’ve walked every landscape I’ve lived in, to at least some degree. I’ve walked wherever I’ve been on holiday – and while holidays haven’t been a thing for some years, walking daytrips have. There are a lot of landscape memories in here. Which means that the memory of a corner of a lane, or a bit of hedge, or a view across some fields isn’t always that easy to identify. It bothers me, remembering and not being able to place those memories.

Something is clearly going on here and at the moment, I don’t know what it is. Landscape is deeply important to me and to my sense of self. In the decade I spent in the west midlands, my dreams were all of the Gloucestershire landscape I grew up in. Most of what’s surfacing at the moment isn’t local to where I now live. Sometimes it feels like the landscape memories are happening as part of a letting go process; that they surface because they are leaving. They aren’t landscapes I can easily bring to mind in a conscious way – I don’t have a great visual memory in the normal scheme of things, so that also makes this odd. These are places I did not know I had memories of.

There are places I would have loved more had I been happier in them – and that certainly isn’t something that was ever led by my relationship with the land. If I had understood myself better, I would have walked more in my twenties. If I had been better understood, there would have been more support to enable me to do that. Perhaps what I need to do is forgive myself for the landscape relationships I did not have, for the places I never really opened my heart to and the emotional relationships I was never able to make.


Rooted in the landscape

Building a relationship with the landscape I live in has changed me. It’s been a slow process over some years, and there hasn’t been much drama in it. There have been no moments of revelation. Gods have not spoken to me. I have no special status or destiny as a consequence of what I’ve been doing. I am no more entitled to speak for the land than anyone else. But, it has been a good and powerful process for me and one I think I will continue to explore for the rest of my life.

Some years ago, I was struck by the phrase that I could walk myself into the land, and walk the land into myself. That’s pretty much it. I’ve built a body knowledge of the land around me for as far as I can walk in any given direction (and get home again). I’ve walked in all seasons and in many different conditions. I’ve walked in the early morning, in the middle of the day, at twilight and at night. I’ve met the plants and creatures living here.

There is a knowledge that comes from taking your body into a space. When we simply look at a landscape, we experience it as outsiders. It becomes a view. Scenery. The picturesque. We are spectators and consumers of it, not participants in it. To be a participant, you have to be in the landscape rather than simply looking at it. Moving a body through a place creates deeper knowing of the place, and how its aspects interrelate. To walk the curve of a hill or follow the journey of a stream is to develop understanding that looking alone cannot give.

I feel rooted. I feel a deep sense of belonging and of participation. I feel this landscape as part of who I am, part of how I make sense of myself. The many journeys I have made through it are part of the story of my own life. My body is shaped in part by how I have walked here and the muscles I’ve honed in so doing. My heart is affected by the effort it takes to climb the hills. I have sweated for this landscape. I’ve had my heart beat hard and fast for it. I have bled here, on brambles and hawthorns. I have fallen sometimes, and worn bruises. I have weathered my skin.

I’m not very goal orientated in my spiritual practice these days. I used to be. I was looking for meaning and purpose and a sense of how to serve and be useful. Much of that is better answered by work I do outside of Paganism – specifically at the moment in my volunteering for The Woodland Trust and working for Transition Stroud. It’s not my Paganism that best serves the land, but my working for environmental causes. I was never that attracted to the kind of revelatory Paganism that enables a person to set up as a guru and charge money for courses. Which is as well, because this doesn’t lend itself.

There was a time when I craved the validation of encountering Gods, or spirits, or anything else powerful that might give me a feeling of being good enough. A desire for approval, for specialness, for significance. Much of that has fallen away in recent years. I don’t think this landscape has any opinion of my either way, I’m just another creature moving through it, one of countless tiny blinks in the eons of its being. There’s a peacefulness in that, and it leaves me with nothing much to prove.


Contemplative Walking

The idea of contemplative walking developed out of my time with the contemplative Druid group in Stroud. We tried some silent, meditative walking in that context, and I found it didn’t suit me – especially not when in the company of other people. I began exploring ways of walking and sharing, and came up with a broad set of principles.

If you walk as meditation, you can end up more inside your head and less engaged with what’s around you. An approach to walking that is engaged can actually be helped by the presence of and interaction with other people. Two or more people will likely see more, and the invitation to share can help increase focus rather than diminish it.

Over a longer walk, silent meditation can feel a bit inhuman. Things arise in the rhythm of movement, the experience of being in the land, and practical needs, that require voices. How to talk becomes an interesting question. It is essential not to prioritise human conversation and to be agreed that it isn’t rude to break off in favour of noting something around you.

The default state when walking should be silence. There should be no small talk, no conversation for the sake of hearing your own voice. Avoid trivia, and avoid the kinds of conversations that involve point scoring or showing off. If someone is moved to speak, hold some silence around that where you can – this is a process we used in contemplative Druidry for speaking, and it is a powerful way of being with people. It works just as well when walking.

This approach creates the space to engage with the land. It also makes room for deeper thoughts to emerge. When things arise that need saying, there is a space into which they can be said. There may be exchange or conventional conversation, and that’s fine within the above parameters.

Listening carefully is an essential part of contemplative walking. It is by listing that you may notice or even see much of the wildlife around you. Listening is key to spotting small mammals in the undergrowth. Hearing bird calls will likely lead you to seeing them. You can’t be totally focused on regular human conversation and listen in this way. However, if you speak softly to each other and leave plenty of gaps, you can listen carefully to each other while also listening to what’s in your surroundings. It’s a way of being that enables us to be human with each other while not being totally human-centric.

I’ve tested this approach. I’ve walked with people who mostly just chat and observed how much of the wildlife they don’t see. I’ve also developed it as an idea within my family, and we do this together to excellent effect. When we started, I was the one who tended to spot all the wildlife, but over a few years both my son and husband have caught up to me and are just as alert to what’s around us. It can seem like magic, but it is really a skill set that can be learned, coupled with a willingness to move away from conventional human interactions so as to open out a broader dialogue with your surroundings.

 


The joys of walking for transport

I’ve never driven a car, and I’ve not lived in a household with a car since my mid twenties. I’ve walked to shop, and carried groceries home. I’ve used trains and buses, and occasionally I get lifts, but mostly I’ve walked, or cycled. I don’t really enjoy cycling so these days I mostly get places by walking to them. Where I live was picked out with that in mind.

Most of the time, walking for transport is a joy. I get outside, I get exercise, I see wildlife, I meet people. While I’m walking, I get time to process ideas and feelings and come up with ideas. If I’m walking to work or to meetings, I get time to ready myself. I arrive calm and mentally prepared and I am never held up by traffic. At the end, I get to do my digesting on the way home, and I usually arrive home calm and on top of things.

I do not have to do radical things to feel adventurous. Every now and then I end up having to walk in adverse weather conditions – in snow, and ice and heavy rain. I have the kit for this, although as downpours increase in violence, I get soaked through more often. I do not need to seek out mountains to feel a bit heroic. Some weeks, all I have to do is handle the regular shopping in the conditions around me. I do not have to challenge myself with grand gestures to feel alive. I feel alive every time I’m going somewhere.

Often, the green answers are presented as losses. Could you give up your car? Could you do without it? As though the car makes us better off, and poverty is what we get in its absence. I’ve spent enough mornings walking past lines of traffic, seeing the faces of people stuck in their cars. None of them are smiling. I’ve got stress free easy movement, peace of mind, lower expenses and a healthier body because I walk. Every time I walk past a traffic queue I am reminded of the riches inherent in my choices.

There is so much freedom and independence to be had if you can set of from your own door and head out into the world on your own two feet. We could leave the roads for those who need them – for those who do not have the privilege of being able to walk, for the emergency services, for the movement of stuff too heavy to carry about on shoulders. We could empty our roads and fill our pavements, and put calmer human interactions into our days. We could improve our air quality and our personal health. It remains a mystery to me why more people don’t see the freedom and wealth inherent in walking as more desirable than the cost and stress of being in traffic.


Walking my Druidry

Walking has long been a key part of my spiritual life. It’s how I connect with the landscape and engage with the living world around me. There can be enchantment in moments of beauty, and close contact with wild things. There can be inspiration from all of that, and also from the way the rhythm of movement loosens up my mind. Time with trees, sun, wind, water and sky has beneficial effects on my mental health, calming and soothing me. It won’t always fix everything, but I can count on it to take the edge off.

There is a process that only happens if I’m out and walking for a long time – at least four hours, maybe more. It’s not something that’s always available to me because I don’t reliably have the energy for the massive walks and I can’t do them in very cold or wet weather. However, when I can, I notice distinct shifts in my mental states. Over time, the landscape opens me up. It opens my heart, takes down my defences, makes me soft, tender and open to everything around me. It is a euphoric feeling and brings with it a sense of great kinship and involvement. Stripped back in this way, I feel like part of the landscape, not an observer of it.

The defences come from dealing with people. There is nothing in a landscape I need to protect myself from. Yes, there are things that could hurt my body, and I need to be careful, and mindful of hazards, but that’s very different. I can move at my own speed and act on my own terms. I usually walk with my husband, and so we talk as we walk, but that’s also gentle and open and spacious. There is no effort involved. Thoughts and conversations arise and flow as they will, and sometimes we have nothing to say and that’s also fine.

Being in the landscape in this way has taught me a lot about what I want from my human relationships. I want to be able to hold that same open awareness. I want to be soft and unguarded and relaxed about being affected by what I encounter. It’s much harder to do that with people, and much less safe. But at the same time, I’m starting to feel that if I can be more landscape-led in what I do, and treat the human risks with the same untroubled respect I have for steep banks, slippery surfaces and sunstroke, I might be able to do things very differently. If I can find ways to listen more to the land without having to spend hours peeling off armour, perhaps I can find better ways of going into human space.


Seasonal walking

One of the reasons I’ve done very little seasonally-orientated walking this year is that the summer itself thwarted me. I don’t do well with high temperatures and this year, the British summer was unusually hot.  I need to work out more routes I can walk in the darkness so as to have options in future years, but even so, I don’t think night walking will make sense or be safe enough for longer routes.

I missed out on spring walking because I was ill for much of it.

As a consequence, here we are in the autumn, and I have missed a lot of what, for me, is my primary means of communication with the land and its wilder inhabitants.  I’ve been walking for transport all year, and that brings me into contact with all kinds of beings, but it’s not the same as a long day moving through the countryside.

However, being out all day in the hills can be physically demanding. One of the things I’ve found is that I need to stay really hydrated to avoid getting locked down by lactic acid in my muscles. I get very sore, really fast if there’s any anaerobic work to be done. Staying really hydrated translates into needing to pee a lot. During the summer this is less of a problem, but when there’s less undergrowth, there aren’t many options. I’m putting public toilets, pubs and cafes into walking routes. Yes, it would be nice to be away from human concerns all day, but it’s not feasible. I’m fortunate that I can now afford to put a pub stop into a walk.

Walking is an act of creating relationship between my body and the land. For that to work, I have to be realistic about what my body can take. If I try and walk too fast, or too far, or over too many hills it won’t go well. A walk dominated towards the end by pain and fatigue can be memorable, but it doesn’t create meaningful relationship, I’ve found. If I hurt too much, I’ll be too aware of my body to pay attention to anything much else.

Despite this year’s various health setbacks, I’m hoping to be well enough to take on my favourite autumn walk – which goes along the hill edge and through the Woodchester valley. I will however, be going on a day when the cafe and loos are open, because it greatly improves my chances of getting around.


Liminal Walking

A guest post from Graeme K Talboys

I am constantly aware of the fact that we live and work on the border. Directly in front of me, as I write, is the sea. Behind me is the land. In stormy weather, waves break no more than ten metres from my front door and foam fills the front garden. Borders are… exciting places.

As you become aware of the natural world and watch it with a close eye; as you become more self-aware and explore your inner being and its relationship with the outer world; you begin to realize that being Druid means living and working on the border.

Although this places us in a different space to most people, this is no bad thing. Western thought – the metaphysic that underpins the way we structure our society, relationships, social institutions, activities, culture, education, knowledge, and so on, is based on a crude approximation of the world. It compartmentalizes, divides the world, presents an ‘either/or’ model.

Yet that is not how the world works. And as ‘our’ lives speed up, it becomes increasingly difficult to live in a subtle manner that is in accord with nature. Our ancestors appreciated this. It is apparent in all we know of them; their stories, their artefacts; their social structures.

If we live slowly, we are better able to appreciate, from the examples of nature, that the world has no sharp divisions. Watch a shoreline for a day and you will see it change as the tide comes in and goes out. Different species of bird come and go, the winds changes direction, the sounds and scents change, the colours transform. And if you follow many cycles you will see that each one is able to be both the same as all the others and unique at the same time.

Watch a tree for a few weeks. When did autumn start? It didn’t. Not in the sense that yesterday was summer and today is a different season. Each tree is constantly changing in subtle ways and in its own time. Only by taking the long view do we see this.

And the same is true of our inner and outer being. Many people think there is a strict division between what goes on ‘out there’ and what happens internally. That is what we are taught to believe. This is not an overt teaching, but it underpins modern metaphysical models, and it is, I would contend, why we are in such terrible trouble as a species.

We are complex beings and our psychological existence is built up from all the things we experience. For example, the emotions we experience are all valid, no matter what prompts them. I can be just as upset, shocked, or happy at something I read in a book as I can at something that happens to me in respect of my relationships with my family or friends. In the same way, my view of the world is shaped by my experiences, only some of which come from walking in a forest or riding on a bus or going shopping, being out in the ‘real’ world, in other words. In fact, I probably derive more from my reading, from thinking, and from sitting quietly in the back garden. If that creates within me a world in which it is possible to converse with ancestral spirits, that is no less real, no less valid, than any other sort of world. If other people do not see the world that way, all it means is they do not see it from my perspective, which is hardly surprising as I am the only person who can.

Walking the borders, being aware of these realities, accepting them even if we cannot know them, is part of the mindset that belongs with being Druid. If we walk the borders, if we find the paths between each nexus, we know that all realities are equally valid and equally real. If they were not, the ways between them, the places where one becomes another, would not be real. And we know they are real as they are all around us in the world.

 

Find out more about Graeme’s work here – http://www.graemektalboys.me.uk/ 


Novelty and the landscape

There is a definite joy in walking somewhere I have never walked before, and seeing a view that is wholly unfamiliar to me. For people seeking a relationship with the land, I think the excitement of not knowing what’s around the corner is very much part of the attraction. However, there’s a risk in thinking of this relationship in terms of the exotic and the unknown. If we’re too focused on the quest for novelty and beauty, we can miss what’s around us.

Landscapes change all the time – with the seasons, and less happily, with human interventions. A person doesn’t need a large number of places to walk to have every chance of experiencing something unfamiliar. I could spend my whole life exploring just the county I live in, and I would never run out of new things to see.

There’s a quote I’ve seen a number of landscape writers refer to: “To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width.” (Patrick Kavanagh). I would say that the same is true of Druid experience. Skimming over surfaces in search of excitement is fun, but it’s not Druidry. It is the depth of your encounter with a landscape that changes it from a tourist experience to a spiritual experience.

Depth of experience takes presence and attention. It calls upon a person to immerse themselves in what is around them, to step beyond their thoughts and into the physical world. You have to show up without assumptions or an agenda. I find that in taking an interest in the small details of a scene, I am guaranteed to always see something new. It may be a cricket in the grass, or the colour of a changing leaf, an owl feather in the path, the exact way the light is catching a hilltop today. In changing light, familiar landscapes become new and surprising, although you have to spend a lot of time looking at the same landscape in different conditions to really appreciate and enjoy this.

There’s nothing wrong with craving novelty and excitement. However, there’s much to be gained from thinking carefully about how best to seek it. What kind of carbon footprint accompanies our walking footprints? The further we go in search of the exotic experience, the more expensive our experience is, in every sense. If we set out, Bilbo Baggins style and follow the path from our own front door, we build substantial relationships as we go. I think there’s something especially magical about being able to see a somewhat unfamiliar place in relation to one you know.

Every journey brings the potential for surprise. There is no knowing what waits around the next corner, and even in the most familiar locations, unfamiliar encounters may await. A tree may have come down, a fox may be crossing the path, an unexpected flower may be blooming.